The Brian Jonestown Massacre Slayed All At Terminal 5, July 25
Months ago, when tickets went on sale for the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s only U.S. show this summer (at New York’s Terminal 5), I said to someone I was trying to persuade to go, “This could be a complete disaster, or it could be transcendent.” Those are the poles they swing between: the train wreck or the sublime. And of course, with the news from London last week that Anton Newcombe had been arrested for allegedly knifing guitarist Frankie “Teardrop” Emerson, the odds seemed to tilt toward disaster. Five minutes into the opening song, “Whoever You Are,” we had the answer to what was in store for us: The Brian Jonestown Massacre were transcendent.
“Whoever You Are” has a slow loping, “Tomorrow Never Knows” mid-’60s feel, and the tone for the evening was set: bright and shimmering guitars in layers — sometimes three guitars, sometimes four — an emollient, occasionally droning organ, and Daniel Allaire kicking the living bejesus out of the drums. Anton Newcombe, fragile, his back to the audience most of the time, stayed on the edge of the action that he thoroughly controlled.
Like so many others, I got a sense of the BJM’s stage mayhem only from watching “Dig!” – Program note: “Dig!” is available below via a widget from SnagFilms.com; you should watch it, snag it, and put it on your own site. Now it was clear what role Joel Gion plays: we already knew he doesn’t sing, he *just* bangs the tambourine, but he holds the center stage that Anton, for a complex brew of reasons, can’t or won’t. Anton seemed frail, and even as his guitar gathered strength, his singing was tentative. You had the feeling you were watching a version of Syd Barrett with both a bark and a bite: a savant who simultaneously exuded reticence and a very sharp edge. But Anton could afford to stand just outside the glare of the stage lights, for inside them, the band was magnificent. It all revolved around his songs, his guitar, his singing. BJM circa 2008 isn’t quite Anton’s backup band, but you get the sense they know the reason they can lay claim to greatness is because of him.
When they played “Who,” the band all wailed their “Whos!!!” like they were auditioning for Jean-Luc Godard’s “Sympathy for The Devil.” It was 1966 and Brian Jones was out of it, but the San Francisco scene hadn’t taken its inevitable turn toward Jonestown, toward Altamont and the long morning after. Donovan was still wearing shaggy vests and putting flowers in his hair. And bands played these long sets with guitar lines searching for space like jungle lianas fighting for light.
I think it’s true that “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and the first Velvet Underground album were released the same week, and if so, last night represented some kind of mash-up between those two Albums of the Week. There’s no actual connection between the music of “Sgt. Pepper’s” and what these guys do — their “psychedelia” is closer, perhaps, to a jam including John Phillips and Skip Spence and Keith Richards in some farmhouse in the Cotswolds. But their music is a capsule dug up from such times. And while last night the band bore little resemblance to Lou’s ensemble — there’s an optimism and a brightness to the guitars, a lack of cynicism to the whole effect — if there was a musical God standing offstage, it was, no doubt, Sterling Morrison.
We could have stood not having Anton and Frankie Teardrop leave the stage for a long smoke while a subset of musicians noodled, wasting time. We could have lived without having some guy who strutted like Roger Daltrey and sang like Keith Moon come on as a guest for a song. By the time they closed with “If Love Is The Drug, Then I Want To O.D.” it was clear just why it was Music’s loss that the careerist Dandy Warhols, not the screwed up genius of Anton Newcombe and his band, were the “winners” in “Dig!” The Dandy’s are bohemian like you. The Brian Jonestown Massacre break on through to the other side, at great cost to themselves, no doubt, to their career aspirations certainly, but to the delight of anyone lucky enough to get to see them.